Tag Archives: Lyndon Johnson

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do

 

Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Public Intellectual Within the Portals of Power

 

 

 

Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:

The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)

                Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is best known today for serving as a presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, writing what amounted to a quasi-official history of the short Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.  Schlesinger entered the White House in 1961 as one of America’s most accomplished 20th century historians, with highly regarded works on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt already to his credit; and as a political activist who had helped define post-World War II anti-communist liberalism and advised the unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.  Schlesinger thus personified what we might today term a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who also engaged in politics throughout his adult life.

                Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days received favorable reviews, became an immediate best seller, and won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography.   But the book has not aged well, and today is often dismissed as hagiography.  It helped cement Schlesinger’s reputation, deservedly or not, as an acolyte of the Kennedys, their pit bull defender in the court of public opinion.  A Thousand Days and Schlesinger’s post-White House years raise the question whether historians can enter the public arena as political actors, yet remain true to their calling when they seek to write about their real-world experiences.  Richard Aldous, author of an incisive analysis of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reviewed  here in June 2013, wrestles with this intriguing question in his biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. 

                Aldous suggests that Schlesinger might fairly be considered the last of the “progressive” historians, a group that included Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., himself an eminent professor of American history at Harvard University.  The younger Schlesinger  “believed in the uses of history and in useful history” (p.191), Aldous writes.  But was he a “great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?” he asks.  Or “was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?”  (p.2-3).  No clear-cut answer to this question emerges from Aldous’ study, but he explores its implications adeptly in this crisply written and thoroughly researched biography, arranged chronologically (assiduous readers of this blog will recall Schlesinger’s collection of letters, reviewed here in December 2015).

                Along the way, Aldous traces the several paths that Schlesinger traveled to become one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals of the post-World War II era.  He provides good if not necessarily fresh insights into the personalities of Stevenson and Kennedy, the two stars to whom Schlesinger hitched his political wagon, coupled with one more  tour of the Kennedy White House (another such tour is Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, also reviewed here in December 2015).   The post-White House years in Aldous’ account were less kind to Schlesinger, who found his unabashed liberalism yielding to other approaches to politics and the writing of history.

* * *                

                  Readers may be surprised to learn that Schlesinger was not born a “junior.”  As a teenager, he determined to change his name from Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.  It was an odd change, since Bancroft was not merely his mother’s maiden name.  She was descended from one of America’s greatest 19th century historians, George Bancroft, a man whom Schlesinger later came to revere as a prime example of an “historian-participant.”  But the name change symbolized the extent to which Schlesinger was beholden to his father, who never lost his grip on his son.

                 Young Arthur was a gifted student who skipped grades and thus was two years younger and significantly smaller than his classmates in secondary school.  He performed brilliantly but was socially awkward due to the age difference.  When it came time to go to university, there was no real choice.  He went to Harvard, where he took many of his father’s courses and was, as Aldous puts it, a “homing bird, happy living in his father’s intellectual coop,” (p.28).  Schlesinger and John Kennedy, born the same year, were contemporaries at Harvard but had little interaction.  Schlesinger was a serious student, Kennedy significantly less so. 

                 Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and even then had been spotted as an upcoming historian slated for distinction in the field.   His father had steered him to a senior thesis on an obscure 19th intellectual, Orestes Brownson, which led to a book on Brownson published in 1939, the first of many for the budding scholar.  His father pulled the appropriate strings for its publication (which Aldous’ compares to Joseph Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of his son John’s senior thesis on the 1938 Munich crisis, published as Why England Slept).  In his work on Brownson, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate how venal and anti-democratic business interests worked against the interests of common people, a youthful perspective that would be reflected in his subsequent studies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.

                As war loomed in Europe, Schlesinger spent the academic year 1938-39 on a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, after graduation from Harvard.  He returned to Harvard for graduate studies, where his seminal work on Jackson began to take form.   American entry into World War II in 1941 precluded him from putting the final touches to his work, and bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the armed forces until nearly the end of the war.   But Schlesinger had a series of desk jobs during the war years, in Washington, D.C., and London.

                Among them was a stint at the Research and Analysis section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.   There,  he analyzed Nazi propaganda, which he considered a waste of time.  Aldous recounts how a disagreement with Maurice Halperin, head of the OSS Latin America desk, over how to characterize a change of governments in Bolivia resulted in an altercation between the two that may have involved physical blows and led to a less-than-favorable performance evaluation for Schlesinger, who was chided for his lack of “cooperativeness” (p.82).  Halperin was subsequently exposed as a Soviet spy, reinforcing Schlesinger’s conviction that there could be no accommodation between American liberalism and Communism.

                After the war, Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he finished The Age of Jackson.  The work challenged the then widely held notion of Jacksonian democracy as a regional phenomenon confined primarily to the western frontier.  For Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was national in scope, characterized by a vigorous federal government countering entrenched business interests on behalf of urban workers and small farmers across the country, including in the Northeast.  Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson at the impossibly young age of 29, aided in part by his father’s lobbying on his behalf.  While not determinative, the senior Schlesinger’s efforts marked another instance, Aldous writes, of Arthur Jr. “living on the inside track, a placement that had served him well throughput his rise to national prominence, so often giving him a head start in an always-competitive race” (p.102).  The Age of Jackson was criticized in subsequent years for ignoring issues of Indian removal, race and gender, criticism that its author admitted was valid.  But Schlesinger’s study remains, Aldous indicates, the point of reference against which other studies of the Jacksonian era continue to be measured.   

                Schlesinger’s first volume of The Age of Roosevelt,  The Crisis of the Old Order, appeared in 1957, with The Coming of the New Deal appearing in 1959 and The Politics of Upheaval in 1960.  Schlesinger never completed the last two volumes in what he had envisioned as a five-volume series.

* * *

                No ivory tower recluse, Schlesinger in 1948 joined famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and a group of other prominent Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, to form the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a group that sought to mobilize support for what became mainstream American liberalism of the 1950s.  The ADA championed a strong federal government to regulate capitalism, assist those working within the capitalist economy, promote civil rights, and advance the national interest, while respecting civil liberties yet taking a vigorous stand against Communism at home and abroad.  

                The following year saw the appearance of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, his first overtly political tract, in which he made the argument for liberal democracy as the only viable option for the post World War II era between the totalitarian temptations of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right.  The Vital Center turned out to be among Schlesinger’s “most enduring works” (p.139).   It was also a product of Schlesinger’s friendship with Niebuhr, another well-placed mentor for the rising academic star as he sought to influence the contemporary political debate.  Niebuhr gave Schlesinger “both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning” for The Vital Center, “which in turn would do more than perhaps any other book to popularize the theologian’s ideas” (p.137).

                Schlesinger moved even more directly into the political arena during the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, supporting the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.  Stevenson ran twice for president against American war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and lost by substantial margins each time. Schlesinger thought Stevenson had a chance to win the 1956 election because of Eisenhower’s heart attack the previous year, with lingering questions about his health and physical stamina giving the Democratic nominee a glimmer of hope.  Schlesinger entered into the Kennedy world during the 1960 presidential primary campaign as an intermediary between Stevenson, again a candidate, and Kennedy.

* * *

                Although Kennedy and Schlesinger hit it off well almost from the beginning, many within the Kennedy clan looked at him suspiciously, as a Stevenson infiltrator within their camp.  Schlesinger’s primary contribution to the 1960 general election between Kennedy and then Vice-President Richard Nixon was a book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make any Difference, cobbled together quickly to dispel the notion that there was no substantive difference between the two candidates.   Schlesinger’s work, effusive in its praise for Kennedy, ’showed him “writing at his most brilliant and polemical best” (p.214), Aldous observes.

                 After Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger eagerly accepted an offer to work at the White House.  Kennedy and Schlesinger reached what Aldous suggests was an implicit understanding that Schlesinger would at some point use his White House experience to write The Age of Kennedy, preserving – and perhaps defining – Kennedy’s legacy.  His official title at the White House was “Special Advisor to the President,” but it was a position that lacked both clearly defined duties and a place in the White House hierarchy, a formula that guaranteed confusion and friction with other White House officials.  Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s long-term assistant, bumped heads frequently over speechwriting responsibilities as they both sought the president’s attention and favor.  Unlike Sorenson and most of the other officials with whom he was competing for presidential attention, Schlesinger had no staff at the White House.  It was therefore more difficult for him to stay in the loop on the key issues that were reverberating through the administration. 

                 Schlesinger often worried that Kennedy was “no liberal” (p.224) and, throughout his White House years, came to feel that he was an “embattled liberal minority in the White House, constantly forced to fight [for] his corner as the administration settled into an essentially conservative character” (p.266).  Still, Schlesinger wrote memos to the President – lots of them, long ones, and on a wide range of subjects.  Even Kennedy, who appreciated Schlesinger’s sharp intellect in a way that many of his subordinates did not, “seemed to tire of Schlesinger’s barrage of ideas and proposals” (p.302).  In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, however, in the early months of the Kennedy presidency, Schlesinger wrote what in retrospect appears as a remarkably prescient memorandum. 

                Schlesinger’s memorandum tried to convince the president not to go forward with the operation, arguing that insufficient attention had been afforded to the operation’s long-term political implications.  At one point, he thought he had convinced the president, only to be told subsequently by brother Robert Kennedy that he should keep his doubts to himself.  The operation turned into a spectacular failure, a serious blot on the young presidency, and Schlesinger came to regret that he had too dutifully followed Robert’s directive to fall into line.  

                Schlesinger had no role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  He attended none of the major meetings, which were so secret he “did not even know that they were taking place”  (p.289).   Moreover, he showed little interest in Vietnam during his time in the White House, although he became a passionate opponent of the war during the Johnson years.  The major substantive area where he arguably had the greatest impact was on Berlin.  After Kennedy’s disastrous confrontation with Soviet Party Secretary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Schlesinger pleaded with the President to reject the views of several hawks in the administration pushing for military solutions to the Berlin crisis (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev is the subject of Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, reviewed here in February 2013).  When the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August of that year, Kennedy’s restrained response reflected the views Schlesinger had expressed a few weeks earlier.

                Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 provided urgency to Schlesinger’s long-planned project to write The Age of Kennedy as a complement to his works on Jackson and Roosevelt.  Schlesinger’s “entire life had prepared him for this moment” (p.2), Aldous writes.  If he had been somewhat of an outlier in the Kennedy White House, he moved front and center in the Kennedy circle in the aftermath of the assassination.  The “legacy project mattered for everyone: for [Kennedy’s wife] Jackie in reinforcing the Camelot myth; and for [brother Robert], who had to position himself in relation to the dead president, not just the living one.  At stake was the political agenda for the ‘60s” (p.317).   Although Schlesinger stayed briefly into the Johnson administration, he left in the winter of 1964 to concentrate on the book. 

                 A Thousand Days, appearing in 1965, became the vehicle by which Schlesinger worked through his shock, depression and grief in the aftermath of the assassination.  Schlesinger termed his work a memoir rather than comprehensive history, “only a partial view” (p.319) which emphasized what he had seen first hand.  The book placed Kennedy squarely within the progressive tradition of Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, rendering him arguably more liberal than he actually was.  Like Jackson and Roosevelt, the Kennedy in A Thousand Days, was “tough-minded” and “pragmatic” (p.326), ready to take on the moneyed elite for the benefit of the many.

                Eminent historian James MacGregor Burns, writing in the New York Times Book Review a month after delivering a withering review of a similar work by Theodore Sorenson, found that A Thousand Days had captured the “sweep and the ferment of the thousand days,” placing the Kennedy presidency in the “widest historical and intellectual frame.”  A “great president,” Burns concluded, had “found – perhaps he deliberately chose – a great historian” (p.331).  But by the end of the 20th century, views on A Thousand Days had changed.  Typical were the 1998 observations of acerbic critic Christopher Hitchens, who termed the book a “court history” which served as the “founding breviary of the cult of JFK” (p.320).  Yet, to Aldous A Thousand Days still constitutes a “foundational text on the Kennedy administration.  Not only did Schlesinger establish the ‘first draft’ of history on the Kennedy years, but he offered an invaluable personal account of life on the inside. . . [T]he book remains a must for any historian working on Kennedy” (p.387). 

                 Much to his father’s dismay, Schlesinger had resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1962 to stay at the White House after taking the maximum allotted leaves of absence from the university.  He thus had no home to return to in 1965 when he finished A Thousand Days.  Just weeks prior to the book’s publication, moreover, the senior Schlesinger died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating loss for Arthur Jr.  Later in 1965, the younger Schlesinger moved to New York to take a teaching position at City University of New York (CUNY).  In the same period, Schlesinger’s marriage of 25 years to wife Marian came unraveled.  Aldous does not dwell on Schlesinger’s personal life, but makes clear that his marriage was at times turbulent, enjoying more downs than ups.

                 Schlesinger had by this time become a vehement critic of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.  In 1967, he published a critique of the war, The Bitter Heritage, an “undisguised attack on the Johnson administration” and its “heedless military escalation” in Vietnam (p.342).  He supported Robert Kennedy’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1968, and was again gripped by depression and grief when he too was assassinated in June of that year.  The death of the second Kennedy, along with that two months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the “destruction of a broader idea,” bringing to an “ugly, violent end the optimism that framed much of Schlesinger’s life” (p.349).  For Schlesinger, the 1960s had become the “decade of the murder of hope” (p.351). 

* * *

                 Schlesinger continued to write while teaching at CUNY, but never finished The Age of Roosevelt, and never published anything approaching The Age of Jackson in stature.  In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, he produced The Imperial Presidency, a work that upbraided Johnson and Nixon’s presidential usurpations, while largely absolving Kennedy of any such transgressions (the book’s title appears to have yielded Aldous’ strained subtitle, which seems off point as applied to Schlesinger the historian).  In 1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times appeared, a biography Schlesinger had reluctantly agreed to write in the aftermath of the younger Kennedy’s assassination a decade earlier.  The work was greeted with mostly lukewarm reviews.

                Schlesinger supported George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency, which he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.  He had to strain to generate enthusiasm for the last two Democratic presidents of his lifetime, Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton  (Clinton, Aldous reports, searched in vain for his own Schlesinger to “take care of the history,” p.387).  Neither espoused the pragmatic federal activism that Schlesinger had championed since the late 1940s.  Schlesinger further worried that the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon what we would today call “identity politics” – highlighting the interests of minorities, women, gays – risked undermining its capacity to unite working and middle class voters across racial and ethnic lines.  And he similarly worried that the emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation in the writing of history had superseded his more traditional approach.

* * *

                 Schlesinger died in 2007, just short of his 90th birthday.  Although “perhaps the most famous historian of his time,” unlike most of  his fellow historians, Schlesinger was, Aldous writes, “never quite sure whether his loyalties lay mostly with his profession or with the people whose lives he chronicled” (p.2-3).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2019

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized, United States History

Never Rely on Experts

Dallek

Robert Dallek, Camelot’s Court:
Inside the Kennedy White House

     During his short presidency, John Kennedy surrounded himself with some of the country’s sharpest minds and most credentialed individuals, yet was exasperated much of the time by the inadequacy of the advice they provided him. In Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, Robert Dallek elaborates upon this theme in a work that is above all a portrait of President Kennedy and a study of how he received and handled information and advice. Dallek is a prolific writer, the author of major works on Lyndon Johnson and on Richard Nixon’s relationship with Henry Kissinger, along with a full biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-63.

    International crises in Cuba and Vietnam dominate Dallek’s book, far more than the Cold War confrontation over Berlin, which looms in the background but is surprisingly not a major topic (Berlin was the subject of a book reviewed here in February 2013, Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth). Behind Cuba and Vietnam in a distant third place among the book’s substantive topics is the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Kennedy believed that the cause was just and important but looked at the issues raised primarily as a distraction from more pressing international ones. The main mission of the Kennedy White House, Dallek writes, was to “inhibit communist advance and avert a nuclear war” (p.xi).

     Kennedy is often described as a hardline, anti-Communist Cold Warrior and, given the times, it is difficult to see how he could have been anything else. Throughout his short presidency, Kennedy was obsessed with not appearing weak and inexperienced, especially in standing up to the Soviet Union. But the Kennedy in these pages is also exceptionally wary of the use and misuse of American military power to advance national interests in a dangerous nuclear age, way more than a surprising number of his closest advisors. As President, Kennedy consistently and often heroically resisted the urgings of these hard liners.

     Among Kennedy’s advisors, his brother Robert Kennedy, who formally served as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, occupied a special position as the president’s “leading advisor on every major question” (p.65). Robert Kennedy was his brother’s alter ego, an “enforcer” whom “everyone had to answer to if they fell short of the president’s expectations” (p.175). When the president needed to stay above the debate, brother Robert “could freely state his brother’s views” and, as needed outside the presence of his brother, “openly announce that he was declaring what the president wanted done” (p.334). John Kennedy came to believe that “only Bobby could be entirely trusted to act on his instructions” (p.328).

    By contrast, President Kennedy’s relationship with the career military officers in his entourage was fraught with tension and mistrust from the outset of his administration. Most Americans considered Kennedy a naval war hero, based on his widely publicized rescue of the crew of PT-109, a torpedo boat cut in half by the Japanese. The military, however, accustomed to serving former World War II Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower during the previous eight years, “questioned the new president’s qualifications to manage the country’s national defense” (p.69). General Lyman Lemnitzer, Kennedy’s first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the administration’s highest ranked career military official, looked derisively at the young president as a man with “no military experience at all, sort of a patrol boat skipper in World War II” (p.70). But the real issue between Kennedy and the military, Dallek emphasizes, was “not Kennedy’s inexperience and limited understanding of how to ensure the country’s safety,” but rather “Kennedy’s doubts about the wisdom of using nuclear arms and the military’s excessive reliance on them as a deterrent against communist aggression” (p.70).

     Dallek begins with a long biographical sketch of John Kennedy that culminates in his narrow victory in 1960 over Vice-President Richard Nixon, familiar ground for most readers. He follows with a similar sketch of brother Robert, in a chapter entitled “Adviser-in-Chief;” and with still another chapter describing the background of some of the “extraordinary group of academics, businessmen, lawyers, foreign policy and military experts” (p.x) whom Kennedy tapped to work in his administration. This chapter, entitled a “Ministry of Talent” — a term borrowed from Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s leading advisors – includes short portraits of many individuals likely to be familiar to most readers: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; US Ambassador to the UN and two time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson; and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, among others.

     Dallek’s substantive account begins only after this lengthy introductory material, about a third of the way into the book, where he focuses on how President Kennedy received and handled the advice provided him, especially during the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba in April 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962; and Vietnam throughout his presidency. In Dallek’s account, Kennedy was ill-advised and misled by his advisors during the Bay of Pigs operation; admirably led his advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and defaulted to them on Vietnam.

* * *

      Dallek’ addresses the ill-fated CIA Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, which took place less than 90 days into the Kennedy presidency, in a chapter entitled “Never Rely on Experts.” The far-fetched operation was hatched during the Eisenhower administration and was presented to the president as a way to rid the hemisphere of nemesis Fidel Castro and what the United States feared was his very contagious form of communism. The plot consisted of utilizing approximately 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade the island, on the assumption that this small force would incite the local population to rise up and throw out Castro (the plot figures prominently in Steven Kinzer’s The Brothers, reviewed here in October 2014).

       Although Kennedy shared a sense of urgency in removing this communist threat just 150 kilometers from the United States’ southern coast, he worried about the perception in the rest of Latin America of any operation in Cuba tied to the United States. The question was not whether to strike against Castro, but rather how to bring him down “without provoking accusations that the new government in Washington was no more than a traditional defender of selfish U.S. interests at the expense of Latin [American] autonomy”(p.133). Kennedy was willing to accept the project’s dubious assumption that the operation could be executed without revealing U.S. government involvement, but opposed from the outset the commitment of U.S. military forces to supplement the exiles’ operation. Dallek suggests that Kennedy gave the green light to the operation primarily for political reasons, fearing the conservative reaction if he refused to go forward. As the world now knows, the operation was a colossal failure, badly wounding the inexperienced president early in his tenure.

      Dallek documents several key instances where advice to the president was, at best, incomplete, as well as some key facts that were withheld in their entirety. Deputy CIA Director Richard Bissell failed to tell the president that the CIA had concluded that the mission could not be successful without the engagement of direct U.S. military support, an option that Kennedy had all but ruled out. Bissell further told the president that if the initial invasion action were to falter, the exiles could escape into nearby mountains to regroup and lead the anti-Castro rebellion. However, he neglected to tell the president that they would have to cross about 80 miles of swampland to reach those mountains.

     Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles shared Kennedy’s doubts about the flawed scheme but failed to stand up to the CIA in internal deliberations, discrediting both in the eyes of the president. Then, after the operation failed, Bowles leaked a document to the press showing the State Department’s reservations, infuriating Kennedy. As he tried to recover from this devastating early blow to his presidency, Kennedy’s wariness of military advice transformed into a more generalized distrust for the advice of all experts.

* * *

      The Cuba story had a largely successful denouement the following year, with the famous October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the United States knew by August of that year that unusual Soviet activity had been going on in Cuba, it was not until October 15th that intelligence officials definitively concluded that offensive missiles had been installed on the island, with a capacity to reach well over half of the United States. Over the next two weeks, the Cold War’s hottest crisis ensued. Kennedy’s strategy at the outset was to “broaden the group of consultants in order to ensure the widest possible judgments on how to end the Soviet threat peacefully, if possible,” notwithstanding the “poor record of his advisors on Cuba” (p.296). But Kennedy also “needed to guard against a domestic explosion of war fever, which meant hiding the crisis for as long as possible from the press and the public” (p.296).

     Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff predictably favored an air strike upon Cuba, followed up by a military invasion of the island. Several advisors, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also urged air strikes against the missiles, with the possibility of subsequent military invasion. The aging Acheson, who disdained Kennedy, seems especially casual in Dallek’s account about using American military force. Defense Secretary McNamara was a counterpoint to the hawkish views of Acheson and of the military men under his command.

      McNamara developed early in the discussions the idea of a naval blockade rather than a military strike. The turning point came when Robert Lovett suggested that they call the blockade a “quarantine,” defining the U.S. action as “more of a defensive measure than an act of war” (p.315). Lovett’s “long experience in government and reputation for moderate good sense helped sway Kennedy. By contrast with Acheson, who urged prompt military action . . . Lovett thought the blockade was the best way to resolve the crisis, with force as a last resort” (p.315).

      Secretary of State Dean Rusk, whom Kennedy had considered weak and passive during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, revived his standing with Kennedy as a “cautious but steady presence” throughout the crisis, a “voice of reason that helped Kennedy resist the rash urgings of the military Chiefs” (p.333). Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson drew on his experience in Moscow to provide Kennedy with his assessment of how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was likely to react and respond. Thompson thought that Khrushchev might be at odds with his own military chiefs and was able to convince Kennedy that “negotiating proposals might pressure [Khrushchev] into conciliatory talks” (p.313). Critical to the approach Kennedy finally adopted, Thompson advised the president to make it as easy as possible for Khrushchev to back down. Throughout the deliberations, Robert Kennedy retained his unique role, “less a thoughtful commentator” and more an “instrument of his brother’s ideas and intentions” (p.334).

      Even after  Khrushchev ordered missile-bearing Soviet ships to turn around and had otherwise signaled to the United States his willingness to defuse the crisis, the Joint Chiefs continued to advocate for the air strike and military invasion option. Kennedy considered this option “mad,” (p.332) and it appears even more so a half-century later. It is impossible to say, Dallek writes, “whether an invasion would have provoked a nuclear exchange with the Soviets.” But it is clear that the Soviets had “tactical nuclear weapons ready to fire if U.S. forces had invaded the island. Whether they would have fired them is unknowable, but the risk was there and certainly great enough for firings to occur in response to an invasion” (p.332).

      Having successfully defused the missile crisis, Kennedy “found it impossible to shelve plans for a change of regimes in Cuba” (p.373) during the remaining thirteen months of his administration prior to his assassination in Dallas in November 1963. But the nationalist uprising in Vietnam and the inability of the South Vietnamese government to resist that uprising was another cause of concern throughout the Kennedy administration.

* * *

     Kennedy appeared to accept the “domino theory,” that the fall of one developing country to international communism would lead to the fall of many if not most of its neighbors. He did not want to be the president who “lost” Vietnam, as Truman’s opponents labeled him the president who “lost” China. Equally important, he did not want to give the Republicans an issue they could use against him in the upcoming 1964 presidential elections. Yet, Kennedy was extremely reluctant to commit the United States to another land war in a distant location, all too reminiscent of the Korean War that had undermined Truman’s presidency. “For all Kennedy’s skepticism about involvement in a jungle war that could provoke cries of U.S. imperialism, he also saw Vietnam as a testing ground the United States could not ignore” (p.166-67). Kennedy never reconciled “his eagerness to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam” with his “reluctance, indeed refusal, to turn the conflict into America’s war, which risked [South Vietnam’s] collapse” (p.429).

     Dallek documents a series of tense and sharply divided internal meetings with the president on Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Kennedy’s career military advisors saw Vietnam primarily as a military problem, with a military solution. But, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy seems to have concluded that they had little to offer in terms of substantive advice. Kennedy’s Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, a brilliant MIT professor with an “unlimited faith in social engineering” (p.165), also consistently offered hawkish views. Rostow was “apocalyptic about the consequences of inaction: ‘The whole world is asking. . . what will the U.S. do. . .?’ The outcome of indecisive U.S. action would be nothing less than the fall of Southeast Asia and a larger war” (p.243). McNamara, the putative boss of the military chiefs, initially favored the Rostow approach, as did Secretary of State Dean Rusk, although both ultimately came to advocate a political rather than military solution in Vietnam.

      John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard professor whom Kennedy had appointed as Ambassador to India, regularly sent letters directly to Kennedy, rather than through his boss, Secretary of State Rusk. Galbraith argued that there were no direct or obvious U.S. interests involved in Vietnam, and that it would be a mistake to commit American military resources to the defense of South Vietnam, its weak and wavering ally. Galbraith saw direct military involvement in Vietnam as leading the United States down the same path the French had traveled a decade earlier. Instinctively, Kennedy wanted to go with Galbraith’s position, but he never adopted that position, either. Rather, he mostly dithered.

     Kennedy repeatedly sent high-level advisors on short fact-finding trips to Vietnam. They typically returned to provide the president with upbeat reports on South Vietnam’s capabilities of defending itself, but with few if any realistic recommendations on how the United States should proceed. In September 1963, after the last such fact-finding trip to Vietnam during the Kennedy administration, General Victor Krulak, Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Joseph Mendenhall, a State Department Asian expert, reported back to the president. Krulak “described a war that was moving in the absolutely right direction and was going to be won” (p.406), whereas Mendenhall saw an “entirely different universe: ‘a virtual breakdown of the civil government in Saigon’” (p.406-07). The astonished and plainly frustrated Kennedy retorted, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”(p.407).

      The specific Vietnam item on Kennedy’s agenda by that time was whether to support a coup aimed at ridding South Vietnam of its leader Ngo Dinh Diem. By early 1963, the United States had concluded that Diem, a “staunch anticommunist Catholic” (p.230) with an “authoritarian and perhaps paranoid personality” (p.163), was unable to lead his country in resisting the North Vietnamese. What to do about Diem was the predominate issue over the final months of the Kennedy presidency, a “war within the war” (p.350). The pressure on Kennedy to give the go-ahead for a coup was “unrelenting” (p.403).

      But with no explicit orders from the president forthcoming, Undersecretary of State George Ball, acting in the absence of Secretary of State Rusk, finally told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in Saigon to tell anti-Diem generals that Washington approved a coup. Kennedy had “neither approved nor opposed a coup, but simply said he didn’t want it blamed on the United States. Kennedy’s uncertainty about what to do about Vietnam allowed advisers to fill the policy vacuum” (p.415). The coup took place on November 1, 1963, without Kennedy’s authorization and apparently with at best only minimal U.S. involvement. It ended up assassinating Diem and his brother Nhu, not sending them into exile, as Kennedy had desired.

     Kennedy allowed his administration’s Vietnam problem to “fester rather than confront a hard decision to expand U.S, involvement or shut it down,” Dallek writes. Kennedy’s hope was eventually to withdraw from Vietnam with “at least the appearance, if not the actuality, of victory. It was something of a pipe dream, but simply walking away from Vietnam did not strike him as a viable option – for both domestic political and national security reasons” (p.342).

     Dallek’s account of Kennedy’s Hamlet-like deliberations over Vietnam sets the stage for the question that Americans have been asking ever since: had Kennedy lived, would he have resisted the urgings to which successor Lyndon Johnson succumbed to escalate the war in Vietnam through large-scale US military participation. There is plenty of evidence to support either a yes or a no answer, Dallek indicates, and it is “impossible to say just what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam in a second term, if he had had one.” But, “given the hesitation he showed about Vietnam during his thousand-day administration, it is entirely plausible that he would have found a way out of the conflict or at least not to expand the war to the extent Lyndon Johnson did” (p.419), Dallek concludes.

* * *

     Kennedy scholars may find that Dallek’s work contains little that is new or fresh about the already extensively studied Kennedy administration. Yet, any reader who has worked in a bureaucracy, public or private, and has ever left a key meeting unsure whether the boss fully understood his or her brilliant arguments, is likely to appreciate Dallek’s close up depictions of how the ever skeptical and often distrustful Kennedy interacted with his advisors.  In Dallek’s telling, the boss fully understood his advisors’ arguments.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 24, 2015

9 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Politics, United States History